When seeking to create a classroom environment that will be safe for the discussion of difficult topics, it is important to spend some time at the beginning of the semester setting group expectations. Get students to buy in to share values in the classroom. Find out what students need to make this a safe and nurturing learning environment, to trust and be trusted.
Ideas that the Productive Discomfort cohort has discussed include:
- Setting a classroom community agreement at the beginning of the semester helps set expectations, create feelings of belonging, and provide a framework to which the class can return when conversations become difficult. These agreements are generated collaboratively with the students. Early in the semester, have a conversation with students about what kind of class experience they want. Put ideas on the board and then ask everyone who agrees with the ideas to raise their hands or stand up. If some students do not raise their hands or stand up, continue to discuss the ideas until all are in agreement. Afterward, type up the ideas and add them to the syllabus, post them to Blackboard or find another way to keep them visible during the semester.
Here is handout on setting classroom community agreements available here: https://crlt.umich.edu/examples-discussion-guidelines
- Use the video “It’s In Every One of Us.” It seems to be out of print but is available on YouTube. Follow video with questions:
- What is “it?” (Some answers tend to be: soul, creativity, love)
- What does it take for you to interact with others at the level of “it?” (Some answers tend to be: no vulture culture, remember everyone has something to learn and something to teach)
- What gets in the way?
- What do we need to create a learning community, to maintain a learning space?
- With ideas written on the board, have everyone who agrees, stand up. If some don’t stand up, negotiate about what they need on the board. Make the items on the board into a handout as an addendum to the syllabus.
- Using a progressive photo story such as the kind in the book Zoom by Istvan Banyai. The pictures in the book slowly zoom out as though the viewer backed away from the previous one. Give each student one or more photos. Require students to put the photos in order without showing the photos to one another.
- Discuss the Four-Fold Way Program as a way to “walk the mystical path with practical feet.” For more details: http://www.angelesarrien.com/four-fold-way. The four wisdoms are
- Show up and chose to be present
- Pay attention to what has heart and meaning,
- Tell the truth without blame or judgment,
- Be open to outcomes not attached to outcomes